Capitol commentary: In search of profiles in courage

By Fred Benson

“There is no more independence in politics than there is in jail.” – Will Rogers

In the midst of congressional gridlock guided by the off-course navigational skills of our current president, it is often said that the country has never been as politically divided as it is today. Some historians disagree, arguing that our bloody Civil War and stories of members of Congress beating each other up suggest that the circumstances existing today are not so dissimilar from the past.

A creative and thoughtful analysis compiled by academics at that measured voting patterns from the beginning of the Democrat-Republican two-party system to the present concluded that we are, in fact, at the zenith of political discord. The chart summarizing their research shows the parties far apart at the end of the Civil War, growing together during WWII and, beginning in the 1980s, becoming more divided than at any other point in our political history. Republicans have moved twice as far to the right as Democrats have moved to the left. This analysis also reported that as the two major parties have moved to extremism, more voters identify themselves as independents.

Further, Pew Research recently conducted a study disclosing that while just 21 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats gave the other party a “very unfavorable” rating 20 years ago, those results now stand at 58 percent and 55 percent, respectively. Worse yet, 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats now view the other party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”

The most important and easily identified cause of this political division is the corrupted redistricting process that led to House and Senate re-election rates averaging more than 95 percent and 85 percent, respectively. This geographical mischief, coupled with an insurmountable campaign financing advantage, means that most incumbents have little trouble holding onto their seats as long as they wish.

Other analysts have identified the polarization of media reporting on national politics as a significant reason for the rise of negative activism: U.S. citizens watch the networks that lean in their direction and do not attempt to hear or understand opposing views.

Another important factor in rising Hill discord was the 2008 decision to shorten the regular congressional work week from five days to three. Gone are the days when members of both parties would share apartments, play golf together on the weekends or crawl a few pubs after work. Members of both parties rarely see – let alone get to know – each other outside of committee meetings.

The end result is that members are expected to support their leadership on all issues deemed to be important to the party – not the country – but the party. Whenever there is an outcome where all votes are along party lines, one can be absolutely sure that there were some members who were forced into line or promised a choice committee assignment, and who voted against their beliefs in the process.

And this is where the rubber hits the road. Where are the profiles in courage? Who will stand up for their values and vote for what they believe is the right thing for the country? Where are those men and women who will bravely practice the restrained self-confidence, patient persistence, independent judgment and creative thinking necessary to open the doors for the cross-party dialogue that will elevate this nation to the highest possible levels of respect domestically and internationally?

We had them once. One of my personal heroes, and good friend, was former Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Hatfield was a WWII Navy veteran, governor of Oregon and a Republican U.S. senator from 1967 to 1997. Throughout his political life, he swam against the mainstream of conventional thought.

He was the only Republican governor who refused to support the Vietnam War, and as chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations, he abstained from voting on military budgets because of his strong sanctity-of-life beliefs. As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1995, he cast the decisive vote opposing a GOP-supported balanced budget amendment. As a result, several senators called for a party meeting to determine if Hatfield should be allowed to retain his committee chairmanship.

At the end of the deliberation, the majority leader asked Hatfield if he wished to speak. Hatfield stood, looked around the room and said, “My colleagues, if being a Republican means I cannot vote my conscience, I am in the wrong party. I will leave the room so that you can vote as your consciences dictate.”

There was a long silence and … no vote. He retired as one of the more respected senators in modern history.

We need more political figures with Hatfield’s independence, courage and integrity. Are they out there?

Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.

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